Slowing Down to Win the Race

I’ve been doing preparation for this coming school year, and as I planned my first units, I started to fall into the trap I always fall into at the start of a new school year: starting the year off too fast.  Every single year since I’ve been in the classroom I rush through the first unit for some reason.  In my college prep courses, I rush through the unit on Reconstruction because it’s review from the 8th grade, or so I tell myself.  In my AP classes, I rush through the pre-1607 period because it’s not the focus of the AP exam, or so I tell myself.  I blaze through those first units to get to the “good” or “real” stuff of the course. By the time I get to my destination, however, I’ve set a tone for the course that I think is actually harming my classes more than helping them.

Putting myself in my students’ shoes, I think the message they receive in those first two weeks or so is that getting stuff done is more important than the process, answers are more important than questions, and content and facts are more important than skills and thinking.  This is definitely not what I believe, but I think it’s the message I’ve sent to my students at the start of every single school year.  Admitting that to myself makes me feel guilty and ashamed.  Is it any wonder that I and my students get frustrated one month into the school year as I try to change directions and essentially un-send all those previous messages?

I wrote in my last post about my students’ difficulties with paraphrasing and vocabulary development, and since writing that post, I’ve been looking about for various exercises to help my students with these two essential skills.  As I read through various articles and lesson plans, my initial reaction was to always worry about the time required.  I had to stop myself repeatedly from rejecting a lesson idea simply based on the time required. Everything in me wanted to figure out a way to cut the lessons in half; everything in me wanted to go, go, go. Somehow I made myself hit the pause button in my planning, which was a significant achievement in and of itself, I must say.  I stopped to consider what would happen if I tried to rush through teaching paraphrasing to my students, if I cut a legitimately effective lesson in half to save a class period or so.  I imagined what the work my students’ handed in would look like if I rushed the process.  I imagined having to either re-teach or (worse) move on without having met the standard.  It wasn’t what I wanted for them or for me.

I’ve gone back to the drawing board, and as I’ve done so, each day that I sit down to work on my first units of the new school year I remind myself to slow down.  As a result my unit on Reconstruction has grown from a mere 10 days to closer to 16 or so.  When I look at the quality of the unit, it’s grown as well.  The unit is a more accurate reflection of what I actually care about in terms of what I want my students to learn, in terms of the messages I want them to receive in those first few weeks of school that will carry us through the year.

All this planning will matter little, however, if I rush the actual experience come August.  I have to figure out a way to remind myself on a daily (hourly?) basis once the school year begins to slow down.  I’m considering actually taping up signs around my classroom that say, “Slow Down.”  I figure if I place them within my line of sight as I’m teaching it may help me to take my foot off the pedal.  Anyone have any other ideas?  I’m all ears.


Green Turtle Stencil with Sign Reading Just Slow Down Thomas Hawk Photo URL :






They Have No Words, Or What I Learned from This Year’s AP Reading

It’s been a long time since I’ve written, and while I’d love to think that this post may be the start of regular ones to come, I’m not going to make any promises.  We’ll see how it goes.

During the first two weeks of June, I participated in the scoring of the short answer portion of the AP U.S. exam.  Luckily, I was able to do this from the comfort of my favorite armchair as ETS is moving towards scoring student responses online.  Being the homebody and introvert that I am, I mostly loved the convenience of this, although there were a few technical glitches on both ends.  Still, I much prefer online grading with the occasional slow Internet connection to flying to Louisville and staying in a hotel with someone I don’t know.

Anyway, the powers that be assigned me the short answer wherein students must read two passages by different historians interpreting the same historical events or people or ideas, etc. This year, the students read differing interpretations of the industrial giants of the late 19th century.  One historian interpreted these tycoons as robber barons and the other historian saw them as captains of industry.  All in all, it was pretty straightforward.  In parts (b) and (c) of the question, students had to use historical information to support the authors’ points of view, which was easy for the students who understood what the two passages were saying about the business leaders provided they had some knowledge of the period in their brains for the picking.  The problem for many students, however, started before parts (b) and (c) with part (a).  Here, even if students understood the passages, they had to prove this to the scorer by contrasting the two passages, explaining how the two historians’ interpretations differed.  Herein lies the problem because apparently (and I include my students in this) many, many students do not know how to paraphrase.

As we practiced these kinds of short answer prompts throughout the year, I noticed that my students wanted to simply quote key words or phrases from the passages without clear explanation, leaving it up to me to infer that they truly did understand the difference between the two passages simply from the words or phrases they chose to quote.  So a typical response might be along these lines:  Historian Joe Smith says industrial giants were “X” and “Y,” while historian Jane Smith says the industrial giants were “A” and “B.”  That’s it. That’s all they would write.  They would often then go on to provide excellent responses to (b) and (c), illustrating to me that they did indeed understand the differences between the two interpretations.  The fact remained, however, that they had not actually explained the differences in the two passages as required in part (a); instead, they’d strategically quoted hoping I’d meet them halfway, I guess.

So of course, my response to this was to disallow my students to quote from the documents and to require them to write a response “in your own words.”  Classic teacher response, I imagine.  And this helped…some of the time.  Still, the problem remained, and the problem seemed to be one for both my strongest and weakest students alike.  They could intuit the basic meaning of the two passages given the context and given the topic, but they struggled to fully explain the major differences in their own words.

After reading nearly 1,500 student responses over the course of 5 days, I can now safely say this is not a problem for just my students.  Explaining or paraphrasing what they have read appears to be a problem across the board even for those students who comprehend what they have read.  I think that last part is the most important part for me.  We tend to think that if a student understands what they have read they will be able to put the main ideas into their own words; if they can’t do this, then they must not have understood or not understood enough.  But this is not what I’ve found with my own students, and it’s not what my experience with the AP Reading suggests.  Plenty of students were able to get credit for parts (b) and (c) but not (a).  This should tell us something.  The deficiency in part seems to be the result of a weak vocabulary.  The students have no words.

Earlier this year I worked with a committee at my school dealing with vocabulary development, and one of the English teachers on the committee confirmed this very thing.  She related how when she helps students write papers the main problem is one of vocabulary.  They have to write a given amount, but because they’ve already used all the words they know by the end of page 2, they struggle to write enough or provide enough explanation.  They end up with highly repetitive papers with little explanation, and at the heart of the matter, according to this teacher, is the fact that the students have no words with which to write.

I really do not know what the answer is to this problem, but I suspect the truest answer is both the simplest and the most difficult: more reading and more writing.  In the meantime, while I try to work in more of these two staples, I am going to go one step further this year.  When we practice these kinds of short answer prompts this year, not only will I require students to write in their own words, but to make sure they do so, I will be underlining all the key words in the passages that they absolutely may not use in their response.  In theory, this will force their hand and make them dig deep for synonyms. Hopefully, they will finally find the words.


An Oh-So-Painful Admission

The other day I wrote about how my students struggled with a comparative reading exercise.  I contended that I thought the biggest issue for them was that they just were not particularly interested in the readings, and thus they had a hard time sticking with it.  I acknowledged that the readings were challenging in terms of vocabulary and content, but I still felt like the biggest issue was that my students often seem to feel that if they are not personally and completely interested in a given reading, then the readings are not really worth the effort.

A former colleague reminded me, however, that there are four pathways to understanding a text, each successively more complex: text to me, text to itself, text to text (what I was asking my students to do), and text to the wider world.  I assumed, wrongly, that my students were already masters of text to me and text to itself.  They are not.  I skipped ahead before they were really ready.  Why did I do this?

Partly I did this because I really do love history, and I want to have deep conversations with my students about a subject matter I love.  I’ve written before about the dangers of assuming when it comes to teaching.  There are so many things we want to do with our students that we sometimes assume they are ready for certain kinds of thinking and reading and writing when they are not.  As I’ve written elsewhere, making such assumptions is not necessarily a bad thing, so long as one makes adjustments when those assumptions prove inaccurate.

But perhaps the bigger reason that I pushed my students beyond their “zone of proximal development” was because I feel pressured to do so.  Every teacher feels pressured to make sure that their students are ready for the next year.  We want to make sure that our students succeed as they move forward, and I know that I worry (too much?) about what their future teachers will think of me based on the students’ preparedness or lack of preparedness.  Sometimes this pressure is self-inflicted, but sometimes the pressure comes, however obliquely, from our colleagues.  Perhaps it’s a comment here or a question there, but added together the inference is unmistakable.  I know this because – and this is so painful to admit – I have been both on the receiving end and the giving end of such comments.  There, I said it.  Confession is good for the soul; it brings humility.

Here’s what all teachers must keep in mind, however.  The teacher “above” you has no idea where those students were when they came to you.  Your students could have progressed more than a year’s worth, but if they came to you “behind,” they may still not be at the level that another teacher feels they should be.  Oh, well.  Unless you teach in a very amazing, super-fantastic school, I would imagine every teacher wishes their students came to them more prepared than they do.  It is what it is.  You just forge ahead.

Forging ahead, however, does not mean skipping ahead.  It does not mean pushing your students so beyond their abilities and understanding that no learning is taking place.  I forgot that for a brief moment in my haste to make sure my students were prepared for next year.  I was so concerned about what a colleague may or may not assume about me and my teaching that I forgot to put the needs of my students first.  Another painful admission, but it’s the truth.

By all means, work on vertical alignment, communicate with colleagues, and try to improve your craft for yourself and for your students.  At the end of the day, however, those students are your students for the year.  They are not the previous teacher’s students anymore, and they are not the successive teacher’s students…yet.  Meet your students where they are, teach them as much as possible within the limits imposed on you, and more than anything, enjoy them!




This Post May Not Be “Interesting”

When you read something for school or work or just to make it through your daily life, what’s the first thing you ask yourself?  I’m curious what goes through other peoples’ minds because here’s what does not go through mine: is this article or book or blog post interesting?  When I first begin reading something new, whatever it is, I don’t really consider whether or not it’s interesting, but it seems like this is the very first question many of my students ask themselves.  Unfortunately, it can also be the last question they ask.

To be clear, it’s not that I don’t ask this question at all while I’m reading.  Once I’m involved in a book or article I may come to the conclusion after a time that I’ve read much more interesting things throughout my life, but it takes me awhile to get to that point. Sometimes, although not always, when I finally realize that an article is uninteresting to me, I’m almost finished and I figure that I might as well read until the end.  When it’s a possibility for me, when I am reading simply for my own pleasure, I may  put the uninteresting book down in favor of something else.  Life is short, and when given the choice, you might as well read the things that interest you.   As I say, however, this is only when I have a choice in the matter.  Sometimes I have to slog through the boring article for work or because I need to understand how my retirement plan works.  No matter what the reading is, however, whether or not it is interesting is never the first matter of importance to me.

We are studying the Great Depression and the New Deal in my college prep history course, and after studying the Depression and FDR’s New Deal in some depth, I asked (Who are we kidding?  I required.) my students  to read two articles by two different historians with quite different views on the New Deal’s overall effectiveness.  Then, I had an assignment asking them to pull out the arguments and compare and contrast the viewpoints of the authors.  Here’s what I found the most intriguing part about the students’ reactions to this assignment.  While some of my students found the vocabulary, content, and argumentation of the articles challenging, more than anything else my students were challenged because the articles were not “interesting” to them.  More than anything else, they found it hard to complete the assignment because they were not immediately engaged from the first sentence or paragraph.  Now, in my students’ defense, there was no major strike on their part; they did the work and they did it without openly complaining, but teachers can sense the mood of even a silent classroom.  The mood was….not great.

We talked today about why I wanted them to read the articles.  No, I explained, this was not a punishment.  No, I did not purposely make an impossibly boring assignment.  No, I wasn’t just killing time.  We talked about how the majority of what they will read for college and career will be nonfiction, informational text and informational text is, perhaps, more challenging than fiction for many of them.  Sticking with those texts matters though, and unless they practice now, they will feel more pain later.  This is what all teachers say though, isn’t it?  Who knows how much actually sinks in?

A few students in different classes asked me after class if I found the articles interesting. When I answered in the affirmative, you would have thought I’d sprouted an extra head.  You would have thought I was an alien from another planet.  They didn’t disbelieve me. They just could not wrap their heads around the fact that someone might actually find the articles interesting, that someone might willingly choose to read more of the same.

Most of the time, I had to leave it there as the bell for the next class rang and students fled in different directions.  Now, however, as I sit here writing this post and thinking about what went right and what went wrong with this lesson, I can’t help thinking that both my students and I missed an opportunity.  Instead of focusing on whether or not the articles were interesting to them or myself, I think I should have explored with them whether or not this should matter as much as it appears to do for them.  Does an article have to be interesting to be worth reading?  And what do we mean by “interesting” anyway?  I can find both a short story and a scholarly article interesting but for very different reasons.  What happens when we don’t immediately find something interesting?  What should our response be?

Was this post “interesting”?  Does it matter?


“And Now For Something Completely Different”

For the first 6 years of my high school teaching career, I prepped 3 different courses each year, two of which were AP-level courses. I enjoyed teaching a variety of subject areas, especially European history, but hindsight being what it is, I can see now that having to prepare so many different courses did stretch me rather thin. I read widely since I taught European history and American history as well as government and politics, but I was unable to read as deeply as I would have liked or probably needed in order to be at my best in the classroom.

When I began my new position a year and a half ago, my preparation time decreased considerably since I only teach American history now. I teach different levels of American history, but the subject matter does not change from one level to the next. While I at first missed teaching European history terribly, I have come to see the loss of that course as a blessing.

Generally, my students fall into three major categories when it comes to their attitudes towards studying American history. The first group, and the one that I probably fell into myself as a student, consists of students who like and even love history, but only non-American history. Whether because they are tired of American history after having had brushes with it since elementary school or whether because European and world history just seem exotic and fresh, they see American history as boring and unfashionable. The second group consists of those students who come to American history ready to see the United States as the very devil having been told by popular culture and the mainstream media that America “sucks.” They are the ones who are ready and willing to blame America for every problem that the world has ever had since 1776, and sometimes even before. There is nothing exceptional or altruistic or honorable about America in these students’ minds, and they bring to their study of the United States a disdain and disregard that is terribly hard to combat. The final group consists of students who come to American history as they come to any history class, with the belief that none of this really matters. Whether American or European or world history, history is just a bunch of dusty facts to memorize and forget. They do not believe it has anything to teach them about their own world or that it affects their daily lives in any significant way.

None of this is new to me, by the way. I have been teaching American history for nearly 10 years now, and I have seen these same groups of students year in and year out. What is new for me is the ability to zero in on these particular issues with regards to the study of American history. And I’ll be perfectly honest, I have not taken advantage of that as much as I could have this last year and a half.

In order to convince a student to fall in love with American history, or at least to “fall into appreciation” of American history, the teacher needs to be in love with the subject matter herself, and even then there is no guarantee that students will adopt that appreciation or love themselves. I knew since high school that I loved, loved, loved European history, especially British history. As I wrote above, however, throughout high school and college, I would have fallen into that first group of students who found American history rather dry and unexciting.   A book on American history was not the first work I reached for off the library shelf. Over the last several years, however, the more I have taught American history and seen how little students actually know about their own nation and seen too how little students actually appreciate – dare I say it – American exceptionalism, the more I have fallen into a deeper appreciation of American history myself.   In all honesty, this newfound appreciation and love for American history has caught me a little by surprise since for so long my professional and personal focus was on English history, and the challenge for me now is twofold. First, reading deeply enough to be able to show my students how truly remarkable United States history is. Second, finding ways to share this with all three categories of students in unique ways that will reach them where they are.

Fortunately, I now have the time to immerse myself in American history in a way that I have not been able to immerse myself in any one kind of history since graduate school. Since leaving school, the bulk of my reading and writing has been geared towards education, not specifically history education or history in general. If I want to convince even a small group of my students to love my subject matter, however, I think I have to show them through my own actions how much I love it too. I can think of no better way than to be a devoted reader and writer of history and to share this reading and writing with my students whenever possible. The bulk of what I have read and what I will read will never make it into a lecture or assignment since a one-year course barely scratches the surface. Yet it will be there in the background to add nuance to a discussion when needed, to add color to what may appear a black and white issue on the surface. Of course, there is always the problem of time; there is never enough time to share all we want to share with our students. Sometimes I want to tell my students about this really good history book I read or this news article I came across that relates perfectly to what we studied a month ago. I’m able to do this sometimes here and there, but not nearly as often as I would like.

So, as the great Monty Python troupe would say, “and now for something completely different.” This blog is changing course; we are taking a detour or perhaps the train is permanently speeding off the rails never to return to the original track. I am no longer going to be using this blog to write about education or my daily experiences in the classroom. Like Forrest Gump said, “And that’s all I have to say about that.”

No, now this blog will serve a different purpose for me, and by extension, for my students. Here I am going to write about the latest history books and articles I am reading and how they are informing my own understanding of United States and world history. Here I am going to write about what I think about the latest history and culture wars, and believe me, they seem to be everywhere lately. Here I am going to share the odd little anecdotes of history that I come across in hopes that others share my interest and amusement. If I gain a few student followers and commentators along the way, I’ll be happy. If I don’t, I’ll still be able to use what I’m reading and thinking through here to hopefully reach a student or two in my in my classroom. And if I don’t even manage that, I’ll still be richer for the knowing.

Convince Me, Please.

If you are a teacher and are not regularly revisiting and reevaluating some of your long held beliefs or practices, you probably should consider doing so from time to time, I’ve always thought.  I have a teacher friend named Lucy that I consistently bother with the same issues again and again because she is a great sounding board who helps me think through what I truly believe about education and best practices.  She recently helped (re)confirm (yet again) one of my beliefs about homework while simultaneously challenging me on the issue of grade inflation.  We should all have a colleague and friend like her.

In texting and emailing her about homework policies, I came up with a list of the reasons why I do not assign nightly homework, particularly to my college prep U.S. history students.***  I thought I’d share them here in the hopes that someone else might either concur with some of my ideas or challenge me on my position. Truly, I mean that.  I would love to have a bigger conversation about this issue, and not because I believe there is necessarily one right answer for all teachers and all students.  Rather, I would like to hear others’ thoughts because I think it’s good to make sure that what I am doing in my classroom is truly the most effective practice for me and my students in our particular situation.

So here it goes.  My reasons for not assigning daily homework to my junior history students.

  1. The research on homework is inconclusive.  Study upon study has been done assessing the value of nightly homework.  As with any educational method or practice, there are both good ways to use homework and not-so-good ways to use homework.  But even when the best practices are used, the evidence about whether or not daily homework actually benefits the majority of students appears inconclusive. Generally speaking, those who would benefit from doing daily homework most often are those who do it least.  Those who probably don’t need the daily homework do it the most, but it’s often just redundant for them. Sometimes students do their homework incorrectly, leading to the need for more re-teaching and the like than might be needed otherwise.  And these are just a few of the issues with daily homework that I’ve read about in the research.
  2. I would rather my students be awake during my class than up until 2:00 a.m. finishing homework and then miss half my class because they are nodding off.  I realize this isn’t the case for all high school students, but it is the case for my private high school students.  They lead these highly over-scheduled, overbooked lives.  They attend school from 7:30 to 2:35, participate in multiple sports and clubs (which is a requirement, not an option, at my school), sometimes have part-time jobs, and have other family and church obligations.  They often are trying very hard to get into a top-notch school with scholarship money to boot, so they sometimes take ACT and SAT tutoring in addition to their heavy course loads which often include up to 4 or 5 honors and AP courses.  The culture of my school, and schools like mine, are not going to change anytime soon.  I could, of course, ignore this like many other teachers I know and respect do.  I could say that it is the student’s choice to take so many hard classes, to participate in so many activities.  But I just can’t in my heart do this.  Again, I would rather be able to maximize my class time with students who are awake and alert because they went to bed at a decent time than assign an extra half-hour of homework daily.
  3. I can’t really tell if the student’s work is his or her own when they don’t do it in class.  Did they copy someone else?  Did they get too much help from a parent?  And if they did, what purpose does the homework serve?  It hasn’t helped them, and it hasn’t served me as a formative assessment that will help me help the students.
  4. Junior and senior high school students at a private, college prep school should be mimicking what they will do in college to a high degree.  In college, students will take a few major tests and possibly write a few longish papers per semester.  The professor may assign readings and sample problems, but it’s rare that a professor will check to see that the student did the work and did it correctly.  The bulk of a college student’s work is reading and reviewing on their own, seeking additional help from the professor on an individual basis.  So for me, while I do not assign daily homework assignments, I encourage my students to read and review their class work on a regular basis.  Whether or not they do this is another matter but usually tells when test time rolls around.
  5. Junior and senior high school students are not college students, however.  College students attend class for a few hours a day at most, and then, in theory, they have many hours of the day to do that reading and reviewing about which I just wrote.  My students do not have that luxury.  Whether they like it or not, they are in their seats in a brick and mortar building for a minimum of 7 hours a day.  If 5 out of 7 of their teachers assigned just 30 minutes each of homework a night (which we know with many teachers is a very low estimate), that’s another 2.5 hours on top of the 7+ they spend in school during the day.  Again, due to their overbooked schedules, this might mean my students are up way later than is healthy.
  6. I maximize class time.  I have streamlined my classes so that we use every possible minute that we can. We start in many cases before the bell for the beginning of class has even stopped ringing.  We review constantly, moving quickly from one thing to the next.  Yes, some of my students in the beginning think I go too fast, but then they catch on and are grateful that because we use class time effectively they do not have to do tons of extra work outside of class to make up for lost time during class.
  7. My results seem to confirm that my approach is working.  I know that test results aren’t everything, but at least with regards to my AP kids, they score very, very well on a test that the vast majority of students around the country and beyond do not.  Again, that doesn’t mean much, but it does mean something, I think.

So what say you?  Agree or disagree?  Constructive feedback always welcome.

***When I say “nightly homework” or “daily homework,” I am thinking about questions, worksheets, etc.  I encourage my students to read along in their text and review their class notes regularly.  I do assign homework assignments every now and again, usually some kind of reading and responding in writing, but again it’s sporadic.  In addition, my AP students are required to read their texts and have brief online reading assessments to go along with their readings, however, this is not every single night.

Surprise, Surprise

This is just a short follow-up post.  I am hoping to write a longer post this weekend….

In my last post, I left off writing that I wasn’t sure what exactly I would receive from my students when they turned in their first iMovie projects ever on Monday.  Based on what I witnessed in class last week, I felt sure these movies would fall into the genre of disaster films…and not in a good way.  But like those Hollywood movies where some hero inevitably comes along to save the day at the last possible moment, my students apparently swooped in over the weekend and saved themselves (and their grades :)).  The movies were actually quite good for the first time out, with only one having any serious technical issues.

Despite the fact that they turned out much better than expected, we still had our chat about preparation and wise use of time.  Most admitted sheepishly that they waited to watch my tutorials until the last moment, fixing their movies after making numerous mistakes along the way that could have been avoided.  Most also admitted that they did not use their class time fully, requiring more work outside of class than was necessary. I have no doubt that some will fall into the same pits the next time we do a project like this, but my hope is that one or two have learned their lesson.  Time will tell.

Today, we watched the iMovies in class, and I was surprised for a second time.  The students, who had seemed a little indifferent to the project last week, wanted to share their iMovies and wanted to see each other’s as well. In fact, I hadn’t planned to show them today, but I had so many requests that we took the last half of class to share the videos.  You could tell that they were both a little proud of their work and a little nervous about sharing.

Watching the students watch their movies made me remember that sometimes apathy can serve as a mask or a disguise to protect a student.  Sometimes that indifferent attitude is only skin deep.  This will be the subject of my next longer post.  Stay tuned.